Research School Network: Explicit vocabulary instruction in school: the successes and could do betters Project leads from 12 schools worked to develop an explicit approach to vocabulary instruction in their department or key stage

Explicit vocabulary instruction in school: the successes and could do betters

Project leads from 12 schools worked to develop an explicit approach to vocabulary instruction in their department or key stage

Twelve schools – across primary and secondary phases – in North Yorkshire took part in a disciplinary literacy project in 2021. Project leads from each school worked with a member of the disciplinary literacy school support team to develop and implement an explicit approach to vocabulary instruction in their department or key stage. The evaluation report can be seen in the link at the end. This blog sums up the key findings and also offers some examples of success.


Schools that identified a class, or particular scheme of learning to focus on in the first instance seemed to give themselves the best launch pad. This meant there was clarity around the short-term target in terms of word selections, and crucially, supporting resources that would help the delivery of vocabulary within the classroom.

One of the challenges when explicitly addressing vocabulary is the sense that there are always so many words that are important. However, we have to streamline our selections to reflect the realities of our curriculum time. Choosing broader threshold concepts can help to narrow the selections yet ensure they remain focused on crucial knowledge that underpins not only part of a lesson but a whole lesson or series of lessons.

This important selection process can also give greater clarity for teachers in the classroom, ensuring vocabulary is more consistently discussed and meanings unpacked. The evaluation report noted the increase in frequency of vocabulary instruction in lessons (with an important caveat):

Project leads reported using strategies to teach vocabulary more frequently in the September and October 2021 (median = 4) than they had in the half term before they became involved in the literacy project (median = 3). However, it should be noted that project leads were retrospectively asked how much they had used these strategies before being involved in the project meaning this may not be an accurate representation of their vocabulary teaching in early 2021.

Our sense when working with schools is that they were far more likely to apply vocabulary strategies in lessons when resources had been developed in advance. These enabled staff to have a clear idea of what they wanted to unpick about a word, and also ensured that introducing vocabulary could be a more active process then just putting a definition on the board [see example resources at the end of the blog].

Pupil outcomes

It can be tricky to get close to broad and viable conclusions on pupil outcomes in projects that were being set up and run differently to reflect the context of different settings. However, schools that considered and prepared for ways to measure pupil knowledge also fared better in this regards. For example, making use of a pre and post test where pupils reported on their own awareness and knowledge of a word (ranging from A – no knowledge to D – proof of knowledge shown in a definition) was a useful tool for those schools that utilised such an approach.

One primary had 19 pupils who completed a pre and post test on 7 key concept words. This created 133 individual responses to words.

- In the pre-test, 42 words were selected as C or D (13 of the provided definitions were inaccurate or insecure).
- In the post-test, 121 words were selected as C or D (2 definitions were inaccurate or insecure)
- 5 pupils who in the pre-test scored either 0 or 1 C/D responses, went up to a minimum of 5 on the post-test.

This encouraging data should be tempered slightly with that sense of, obviously, after being taught something kids will always know more – you’d be worried if the post-test numbers didn’t go up at all! Nonetheless, the extent of the improvement can certainly give us the confidence that the approach is not doing any harm at all!


Making that step from a promising small scale trial to something that is being rolled out more widely across a department or school is always a challenge and can be the stumbling block for many a school initiative. Only half of the project leads reported that they would be confident to provide training and support to help their colleagues implement a disciplinary literacy approach.

The evaluation report provides some useful pointers for schools when considering scaling up a project.

- It will be important to monitor levels of confidence [of project leads] to deliver training and support their colleagues.
- The time and resources needed by project leads should be made clear to school leaders.
- Project leads may appreciate opportunities to engage as a network and to see the approach being implemented in different settings.

Several schools in the project now find themselves at the EEF Implementation Guidance Report’s sustain phase as they look to perhaps widen the approach to more colleagues. The report notes that this can be at the same time, tiring, energising, ambiguous, exhilarating, and overwhelming’. Remembering that the early successes have been built around: careful selection of words; creation of usable classroom resources; and tracking of what pupils have learnt will be important for schools to recall and adhere to as they take their next steps on the implementation journey.

If you would like to discuss your school’s approach to vocabulary instruction do get in touch: mh.​jones@​huntington-​ed.​org.​uk

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Evaluation report

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Example resources

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